The old saying goes that a hot goaltender is “standing on his head.” Robin Lehner did that, too, on Sunday. But for variety, he made a stand with his head.
It was near the midpoint of the Islanders’ 4-1 victory over the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena, which gave them a shocking 3-0 lead in the first-round playoff series.
“I just saw the puck come out [from behind] and I couldn’t really get it with my arm,” Lehner said. “And it was coming toward the danger area, so I just tried to get it away.”
He did so by flicking his helmet at the puck, soccer header-style, knocking it behind the cage and out of harm’s way.
Had he ever done that sort of thing before?
“It must have happened a couple of times,” he said, not entirely sure when. “But it was a good play.”
So it has gone for Lehner during most of his first season with the Islanders and now for his first significant playing time in the postseason.
No one could be sure how Lehner would react, and coach Barry Trotz was prepared to use both him and Thomas Greiss at times if necessary. So far, it has not been necessary.
The Islanders have allowed five goals in three games, none by Sidney Crosby’s line, and have made the Penguins look worn out two years after the second of back-to-back Stanley Cup seasons.
They have outplayed the Penguins’ star-filled lineup, including in goal. The Penguins’ Matt Murray entered the series with those two Cups on his resume; Lehner entered it with two career playoff appearances, both in relief, for the Ottawa Senators in 2013.
After the Penguins took an early 1-0 lead in Game 3, Murray gave it back 28 seconds later when Jordan Eberle beat him to his stick side from a sharp angle. Murray was beaten twice more; Lehner was not beaten again.
“He’s been doing it all year,” Anders Lee said. “Nothing really new, nothing’s really changed. He’s seeing the puck so well. He’s so poised back there. The confidence he has, that’s infectious for us up in front of him.”
Lehner credited his teammates’ help but agreed that he is in a good place, feeling “calm” in net. Not that it’s easy.
“When they’re in our zone, it’s tough,” he said. “It’s really, really hard to see pucks. They have a lot of good players who are in front of my eyes that are screening me.
“There are a lot of people in the middle of the ice, so I’m just trying to scramble, find pucks, work with the d-men. They’re a good offensive team. It’s not easy.”
Lehner pushed back at the notion that he is a playoff novice.
“This is my ninth year in the league,” he said. “I’ve been around in the playoffs before on the bench. At the end of the day, it’s a little bit more atmosphere. It’s a little bit harder. People are checking a little bit more and it’s a little more scrambling in the front of the net.
“But I’m just going in with a mindset of trying to play my game, trying to see pucks, trying to be as loose and controlled as possible.”
If the Islanders make a deep run, Lehner’s personal story of battling substance abuse and mental health issues will get more attention nationally, adding to the drama that is unfolding on the ice.
Trotz referenced it after the game, unprompted.
“Playing goal for us is the easy thing; the hard thing is he’s had to deal with a lot of off-ice issues, and it takes a tremendous amount of character and toughness to do that, and he’s done that,” Trotz said.
“No matter what he does in goal, I’m more proud of what he’s done off the ice. That’s been the real battle for him. Anybody who’s gone through it knows that. He’s tough as nails that way.”